The Siege, Russia, 2006
Black&White, 52 minutes
Footage: N. Blazhkov, A. Bogorov, Ia. Blumberg, A. Bystrov, V. Valdaitsev, N. Golod, B. Dementiev, N. Dolgov, S. Ivanov, O. Ivanov, L. Izakson, A. Klimov, A. Ksenofontov, R. Karmen, L. Levitin, E. Leibovitch, V. Maksimovich, S. Maslennikov, L. Medvedev, A. Nazarov, P. Pallei, F. Pechul, A. Pogorelyi, G. Simonov, B. Sinitsyn, Ia. Slavin, B. Sorkin, V. Stradin, K. Stankevich, V. Sumkin, G. Trofimov, E. Shapiro, B. Sher, G. Shuliatin, E. Uchitel’, S. Fomin.
What might be the strategies, aspirations and limitations for film directors’ manipulation of war footage? The alleged point of origin of this tradition may well strike us with its seeming innocence: “The first example of a battlefield reconstruction passed off as the real thing is probably the Vitagraph Company’s The Battle of Santiago Bay (1898). The cinematographer, Albert E. Smith, traveled to Cuba and shot some actuality footage, but when it was considered not to be dramatic enough Smith faked the battle using a water tank, cardboard ships and smoke from their cigars.” (Chapman 36)
Countless cinematic works have since confronted the multifaceted problem of the authentic representation of war. The problem has not diminished with time, and may be seen to form the underlying epistemology of Sergei Loznitsa’s much acclaimed film The Siege. In his case, however, the issue is complicated by an additional layer of ambiguity: as well as facing the question “what comprises the authentic representation of war?” Loznitsa must rise to the challenge of reconstructing historical events retrospectively, since his documentary film is made some 55 years after the fact. The director’s duel with history is complex: he must acknowledge the highly fragmented nature of material shot for the genre of kinosbornik in 1941-42, he must fight the totalizing desires of the ideological censorship of the Siege and, most importantly, overcome the conflicting urges of Siege memory—both that which insists on the erasure of traumatic images and that which requires a sense-making narrative that would impose an organizing frame of coherence on the fragmented manifestations of history.
Loznitsa’s The Siege presents a series of seemingly random episodes from the siege of 1941-44. The director found these materials dispersed and collecting dust in various Petersburg archives. I would suggest that many of his findings chosen for inclusion are the censored remains of the Battle for Leningrad (1942), the main cinematic text of the official propaganda of the Siege.  We have a rare opportunity to follow the logic of the censoring machine’s mutilating work: the discussion of the Battle of Leningrad by the leaders of the Party government (Zhdanov, Popkov, Kuznetsov) has survived in a shorthand record. Тhe suggested areas for improvement, according to their highly influential opinion, were as follows. First, the lack of cohesion and absence of master-narrative: “Episodes of the film are cobbled together from all over the place. They want to show one location—the city being cleaned up—and they jump to another. It presents itself as one great hodgepodge. The whole thing needs to be shaped into a system…currently there is no voice-over narration—a voice-over narration would explain a lot!”. Second, the redundancy of gruesome details: “As far as the corpses are concerned—where are they being driven? I don’t think it is necessary to show very many…It will result in too many difficulties. A ruined building, surrounded by fire, everything covered in ice, people scarcely able to move, and the armed resistance is not shown… The damage is overdone in the film.” And third, the “obsessive” interest in the suffering beauty of the city: “the question of monuments should be steered clear of—because it's not so much monuments that need to be shown as the living Leningrad.” (Fomin, 210-11).
Six decades after this trial and the censoring surgeries that followed, Loznitsa has created a film that radically reverses the rules and expectations of the Soviet ethos of the Siege representation. His The Siege concentrates on the most unbearable topoi of life in the besieged city—corpse-filled streets, buses and trucks frozen into ice, Calvary Way-like expeditions to obtain bread and water; it also empathically follows the changes in the city’s image—the disappearance of monuments, the embankments and facades “wounded” by the constant shelling and bombing.
Reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2009 in KinoKultura